History of the Jews in the Republic of Georgia
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The history of the Jews in Georgia dates back as far as 2,600 years. The Georgian Jews have traditionally maintained a distinct community, separate not only from the Georgian Christian population but even from the Ashkenazi (German) Jews.
Georgian-speaking Jewry is one of the oldest surviving Jewish communities in the world. The Georgian Jews have an approximately 2,600-year history in the region. The origin of Georgian Jews, also known as Gurjim or Kartveli Ebraelebi, is debated, but some claim they are descendants of the exiled ten tribes of Israel by Shalmaneser V of Assyria. Another more popular view is that the first Jews made their way to southern Georgia after Nebuchadnezzar's conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and exile in Babylon. This claim is supported by the medieval Georgian historical account by Leonti Mroveli, who claims: "Then King Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. The Jews who fled thence come to kartli and requested from the mamasaxlisi [local ruler] of Mtskheta territory in return for tribute. He gave [a place] and settled them on the Aragvi, at spring which was called Zanavi, which was later renamed as Zanavi, the quarter of Jews."
Another version offered by Mroveli, was the settlement of the Jews in Georgia during the period of Roman Emperor Vespasian. However, he believedt that Jews lived in Georgia long before the 1st century CE. According to Mroveli: "During their [Bartom and Kartam's] reign, Vespasian, the emperor of the Romans, captured Jerusalem. From there refugee Jews come to Mtskheta and settled with the old Jews."
The ancient Georgian historic chronicle, The Conversion of Kartli is the only historiographical source concerning the history of Jewish community in Georgia. The chronicle also describes similar story which was offered centuries later by Leonti Mroveli, but this time instead of Nebuchadnezzar, the period of Jewish migration into Georgia is ascribed to Alexander the Great: "...the warlike seed, the Honni [Jews], exiled by the Chaldeans, [came to Kartli] and requested the land for tribute from the Lord of the Bun T'urks [suburb of Mtskheta]. And they [Jews] settled in Zanavi. And they possessed it."
Georgian sources also refer to the arrival of the first Jews in Western Georgia from the Byzantine Empire during the 6th century CE. Approximately 3,000 of these Jews then fled to Eastern Georgia, which by that time was controlled by the Persians, to escape severe persecution by the Byzantines. The existence of the Jews in these regions during this period is supported by the archaeological evidence which shows that Jews lived in Mtskheta, the ancient capital of the Eastern Georgian state of Iberia-Kartli.
According to a Georgian story, Jewish communities existed in Georgia in the 1st century, because a Georgian Jew called Elias was in Jerusalem during the crucifixion and brought Jesus' robe back with him to Georgia, which he acquired from a Roman soldier at Golgotha.
The Jews spoke Georgian and later Jewish traders developed a dialect called Qivruli, or Judeo-Georgian, which included a number of Hebrew words.
In the second half of the 7th century, the Muslim Empire conquered extensive Georgian territory, which became an Arab caliph province. Arab emirs ruled the majority of the region until 1122.
The community, which numbered about 80,000 as recently as the 1970s, has largely emigrated to Israel, the United States, the Russian Federation and Belgium. As of 2004, only about 13,000 Georgian Jews remain in Georgia. According to the 2002 First General National Census of Georgia there are 3,541 Jewish believers in the country. For example, the Lezgishvili branch of Georgian Jews have families in Israel, Moscow, Baku, Düsseldorf, and Cleveland. There are approximately seven hundred Georgian Jewish families living all throughout the New York tri-state area. They largely reside in Rego Park and Forest Hills, New York.